No More “Reconciliation” Talk

This post is mostly for other white Christians.

It’s not about what we should all be doing today in response to what’s happening in #ferguson and dozens of other cities today. Nearly two weeks into this spreading eruption there’s so much powerful and precise writing out there now on that, that not a one among us can possibly say again, “I’m so upset and outraged, but I just don’t know what a white person’s to do.”

Find something. Do it. Right now.

But this post is about the longer haul when the tear gas canisters are finally empty. It’s for those of us who love to talk about “racial reconciliation.” About “welcome” and “inclusion.”

I’d bet a lot of money that if you’re a liberal white Christian you recognize these concepts very well.

Racial reconciliation.

It’s the official way we justice-loving, liberal (white) Protestants have talked about how we should respond to racism since the civil rights era came to a close. It’s the most persistent path we’ve chosen in our pursuit of the interracial healing and togetherness we seem to know (or think) we need.

And that’s what this long haul post is about.

We white Christians who love to talk about reconciliation need to stop.

However else we respond to this most recent explosion of white supremacist violence it’s my earnest prayer that those of us who believe love and justice is at the heart of the gospel will finally recognize this:

  • That reconciliation isn’t enough;
  • That white Christians don’t get to use that word anymore.

Reconciliation can’t begin to get us into the kind of responses that the murder of Michael Brown–one among a relentless many (every 28 hours in the U.S.see the ever powerful and brilliant Mia McKenzie on this )–demands of those of us who claim we justice, love and Jesus.

Reconciliation can’t begin to get us into a place of dealing with the actual depth of racial alienation and Black oppression in the United States that Ferguson reveals still exist these fifty years after the Civil Rights movement that white Christians (like me) love to wax eloquent about.

Ferguson is hard-core confirmation of what a failure our fifty years of reconciliation-talk in (still) white Protestant churches and denominations has been.

Nothing about this is a surprise. And the demand to stop talking about reconciliation isn’t new.

What’s happening in Ferguson is no surprise to most African Americans in the United States. It’s an atrocity. It’s a horror and an outrage. But it’s not a surprise.

Those of us who are surprised just haven’t been listening very closely.

But the reality is that liberal white Christians—including those who had become allies in the Civil Rights movement—stopped listening to Black Christians by end of the 1960s.

Ferguson demands we white Christians stop talking about reconciliation and start telling the truth about our own history. Or, it may be we need to learn our own history for the first time.

By the end of the 1960s many Black Christians starting advocating the same analyses the larger Black Power movement was insistent on. Black Christians started saying that visions of “beloved community” would not be enough to disrupt the cycles of police violence, economic deprivation, disenfranchisement the Black community contended with every day.

Black Christians started saying that reconciliation was not enough! Instead, they said, white Christians needed to start with two other more obvious “R’s.”



When Black Christians started saying that? White Christians fled the scene.

There’s a much longer story to be told here. But the point is that Ferguson is one more moment when we can see that our (mostly) white choice to continue down the “reconciliation” path back then (Black Christians’ voices be damned) was a failure in the face of prescient, incisive, and prophetic analysis of Black clergy and laity engaged with Black Power. Black Christians said then–and many have continued saying since–that without white repentance and active, concrete material repair of social structures and inequity . . . well, as much as appearances might change, the more things stay the same.

So please, for the long haul, this time as I listen to white siblings speak up a bit more than we usually do about the atrocities and realities of race in this nation in the ongoing eruption of Ferguson?

  • A moratorium on the word “reconciliation” leaving the lips white Christians;
  • We have no right to utter anything other than the words “repentance” and “repair” and to engage in the actions that must accompany such words to give them any meaning for a long time to come.

Earlier this week I sat proofing text from my forthcoming book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Reconciliation amid the swirl of outrage, grief, despair, and many other feelings I (like many of you) am being consumed by.

And I read this passage I wrote a year ago:

“White Christians today are much less familiar with the Black Power movement than they are with civil rights. This lack of familiarity is not an historical accidental. While many northern, white Christians were eventually converted to the cause and vision of the Civil Rights Movement, they overwhelmingly rejected Black Power. . .

[But] the way in which we remember the Civil Rights Movement, which typically involves telling a triumphant tale of successful social transformation, is deeply inaccurate. By the end of the 1960s many Black Americans—including Black Christians—were not hailing civil rights as the success we hail it today. In contrast, the end of the 1960s found many African Americans in a state of despair and outrage. Such despair and outrage was less a response to innate weaknesses of the movement itself than to the persistence of white intransigence and the ongoing Black suffering such intransigence ensured despite the brilliance, longevity and human cost of the movement.

When we misremember civil rights we forget and ignore the analysis of civil rights African Americans rendered at the time, as well as the festering and deepening racial alienation that marked its end. Simply put, neither within nor outside the church did we leave the civil rights movement a relatively unified collective needing merely to complete the unfinished vision articulated by King and so many others.

We left the movement with Blacks increasingly persuaded that key assumptions of the movement were not viable: that, at their core, liberal whites were not interested in a deeply transformed social and economic order despite what they claimed, that the witness of nonviolent suffering would not ultimately trigger a humane response among more recalcitrant whites despite the power of nonviolent civil disobedience, that the primary analysis, interpretations and responses of the Civil Rights Movement had not put us on essentially the right national path for realizing racial justice. In short, though one might not now it when we listen to our public recollections today, we did not come to the end of civil rights with most Black Americans embracing the movement having been a widely realized success.”

The more things appear to change, the more the stay the same.

Were we interested in a deeply transformed social and economic order then? Are we interested in it now?

Ferguson will reveal much more about the state of the white Christian soul than it already has.

So please, no more reconciliation talk fellow white Christians. If/when the tear gas stops raining down in Missouri, it’s past time we confine ourselves to the prayers and activities of repentance and repair.

11 Responses to “No More “Reconciliation” Talk”
  1. Repentance and repair are nice buzz words. What does it look like? What concrete actions need to be taken?

    • I’ve been thinking about this as well. What are the actions we take?

      I think to repent means to search our hearts and minds to find if there is any offensive thoughts and feelings within. What excuses are we making? What judgments or assumptions do we hold? Have we been apathetic? Look carefully at any interior monologue that starts with “I’m not racist, but…”

      To repair means to change the way we relate to individuals of color and communities of color. This probably means a sacrifice of some kind or at least inconveniencing ourselves. Participating in communities of color, attending congregations of color, starting conversations and listening but not stopping when the conversation gets uncomfortable. Becoming a stakeholder in communities of color rather than staying in our own privileged ones so that we can share in the struggles and challenges.

      These are just a few ideas. I’m anxious to hear others about what repentance and repair should look like.

      • Rachel says:

        Jenny! To add to your ideas, I wanted to bring up that I think racial injustice has a lot to do with economics, too; how we get our food and attain goods. Knowing how our current economic system operates and plays a big role in the injustices us “minorities” face is important when it comes to this repentance and repair. Money is power in the view of the world. A lot of racism is enacted today through withholding from persons of color a college degree or a good job position/fair wage. And our country’s racism (slavery) began because of unjust economic interest and practices. Giving black people less or bad land to farm is racism inspired by economic injustice for instance. So, while it is important to address social and relational issues as Christians, we should also ask economic ones! Like why do many black families in our country have parents working two jobs? Or, why are the work conditions and wages of Hispanic brothers and sisters unfair?

      • Yes, I agree! And economics are also “oh so concrete,” which is what we need to insist on.

  2. Great feedback.

    I agree that repentance and repair can turn out as “buzz-y” as reconciliation. But, for white Christians, even giving up (like in a “spiritual fast”) the right to talk about “reconciliation” is one action. At the start of a fast, you don’t know what you might realize. So, I think a moratorium, collectively on reconciliation is a good start.

    I think repair can look really different in different contexts and lives. But I can think of about a hundred activities.

    -For this moment, repair might mean white Christians and congregations deciding to serious and active (concrete responding, give time, energy and commitment) in regard to policing practices and policies in their own towns and cities. I am almost say with certainty that similar issues vex communities of color in one’s hometown and in many places African American and Latino/a communities (churches) are already working on these issues. Often white congregations don’t even know this because we live such segregated lives. So, a commitment to long-term sustained active engagement–with others already leading on these concerns and seeking public policy CHANGES–is repair (reparative). It is action to try to repair the harm that has been done.

    -It might mean getting involved at one’s local school. Finding out what’s going on THERE with the school-to-prison pipeline. I can tell you, in Des Moines where I live, there’s harm being done every day and activists doing the hard, slow work of challenging it. I can plug in there.

    -It might mean finding out what’s going in that is “harmful” in any other number of areas that one has particular gifts, skills and passion and in regard to which one can show up and plug in to support the work that communities of color are almost always already doing–but doing without white allies.

    Repair doesn’t have to mean (CAN’T mean) thinking we can do it all or fix it all over night. It means taking action in regard to the concrete, material harms that are the EFFECTS of four years of white supremacy in this nation and that we who are white benefit from whether we want to or not.

    I think I have to think more about repentance: but it’s something like grief and remorse for the ways I am responsible–as part of a collective–for where we are as a nation. I’m not personally responsible for lots of what’s wrong. But, a. I have benefitted, as has generations of my family; b. I am responsible for what I do or don’t do to make it different going forward; and c. I benefit every day–it is a sin if I teach my white child police are “safe” and never do anything to make my local police department more “safe” for children of color. Repentance can only be assessed externally, but our actions–thus the repair part.

  3. And repair looks like the actions this mother writes about. This is an amazing letter:

  4. Marcia Riggs says:

    Thanks, Jennifer. You said eloquently what I have been thinking for some time. Beloved Community is another term that needs a moratorium.

  5. Pat McClendon says:

    As an African American living in a predominately white community in rural Indiana, the first thing that would elate me is if white Christians, particularly teachers, believed what is being said by African Americans (other minorities included) to be truthful. Teachers in our schools don’t believe that minority students are being harassed daily by white students. White students aren’t yelling out racial name calling; that would be too overt. What’s happening is the constant, daily harassment and white teachers and parents are participating in “passive racism” ( Definition: It doesn’t affect me and I don’t see where it’s harmful, I won’t get involved or offer an opinion.) Until white Americans specifically Christians move from “passive racism” to “active anti-racism” there will not be change. Like it was stated in the article, African Americans were not surprised by the shooting. I wish I had been surprised but even today I still have to prepare my 10 year old great nephew on how to act and respond so not to get expelled from school or even killed. Do you have to do that with your child? Does “beloved community” need a moratorium? I say, “no”. What it needs is active and real dialogue followed by actions.

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